Sunsplash: Reggae to Go

Jamaica's annual Sunsplash festival has become one of the world's great musical events and the nerve centre of reggae music

Buju Banton. Photograph by Dreamy RileyGrey day, red-hot music: the Sunsplash crowd. Photograph by Dreamy RileyMarcia Griffiths works the Sunsplash crowd. Photograph by Dreamy RileyPower: singer Judy Mowatt in full voice. Photograph by Dreamy RileySunsplash in action. Photograph by Dreamy RileySunsplash star Ninja Man. Photograph by Dreamy RileyTiger in action. Photograph by Dreamy Riley


Mention the word today and there’s an automatic prefix: reggae. The two go together like saltfish and ackee, Ramadhin and Valentine, pudding and souse, Jean and Dinah.

It wasn’t always so. Sixteen years ago, reggae was in its infancy in international terms, and the word sunsplash had just been conjured up by four young Jamaican entrepreneurs. The quartet – Tony Johnson, John Wakeling, Ronnie Burke and Don Greene – had dreamed up the idea of a big annual reggae festival on Jamaica’s north coast and were on the verge of turning this dream into reality.

Today, Reggae Sunsplash is much more than a dream. It’s an institution, one of the world’s great music happenings.

This August, just as they do every year, thousands of reggae lovers will converge on Jamaica to wallow happily in an orgy of the music that was born in the ghettoes of Kingston three decades ago. And this year, for the first time since 1980, Sunsplash will be returning to the Jamaican capital. Sunsplash 16 will be held at a new venue Jamworld festival village, about 15 minutes’ drive from downtown Kingston. The return of reggae’s biggest extravaganza to the music’s spiritual home coincides with a push to lure more visitors to the largest city in the English-speaking Caribbean. With its innumerable recording studios and endless supply of talented musicians, Kingston has always been the capital of the reggae world.

And, as the core event in reggae’s ever-expanding universe, Sunsplash invariably mirrors what’s happening in the music. Its ups, its downs and its in-betweens can be charted during the six days with a fair degree of accuracy by any reasonably experienced navigator of reggae’s sometimes muddled waters.

Reggae has come a long way since Bob Marley and the Wailers burst onto the world scene in the early seventies with a no-frills, no-punches-pulled brand of revolutionary music that made you dance and made you think at the same time. And Reggae Sunsplash has come a long way since its founders staged their first festival at Jarrett Park, a sports ground in the heart of Montego Bay, and watched in dismay as thousands of fans scaled the walls, making Sunsplash One an artistic triumph and a financial disaster.

Reggae is a lot more organised these days. And so is Sunsplash.

Reggae artists and Sunsplash organisers have learned, slowly and often painfully, that you ignore the business end of show business at your peril. In the early years, workmen would still be hammering the stage together two or three hours after the scheduled kick-off time on opening night. Today, Sunsplash MCs apologise if the show starts more than a few minutes late. Some things, though, don’t change. From the beginning, Sunsplash has been the big one for reggae artists everywhere. The crowds, reggae connoisseurs from around the globe, are notoriously hard to please, and an encore call is the music’s most coveted accolade. For the fans, it’s an opportunity to soak up the best the reggae world has to offer, night after night, and to be part of a huge gathering of people with one thing in common, a love of the music.

Sunsplash hasn’t kept its finger on reggae’s pulse by accident. Its organisers are businessmen, and while they’re out to make a buck or two they’re still very much fans. But the music they’re showcasing is the music they love, and it’s a love affair that hasn’t shown the slightest sign of cooling over the years.

For example. The year’s 1991, it’s the second night of Sunsplash 14, and Tony Johnson is ecstatic. Johnson is in charge of the annual world tour, which takes a select bunch of musicians on one-night stands across North America and in recent years to Japan. On his travels he’s caught a show by a red-hot young South African reggae star called Lucky Dube, and he’s persuaded his partners that Dube simply had to be on the line-up that year for Sunsplash’s first World Beat night.

His colleagues were sceptical, but Johnson insisted. And he’s just seen Lucky Dube and his extraordinary band The Slaves take Jamaica by storm. “Isn’t he just awesome,” says Johnson in delight, as Dube is called back for the first encore of the week.

Since then Dube has headlined a major Sunsplash tour, and was brought back for last year’s Splash as one of the headline artists on the closing Saturday night. From being a cult artist known only to a handful of hardcore enthusiasts outside his native South Africa, Lucky Dube has become a genuine international figure, widely regarded as the most dynamic performer in today’s reggae scene, if not the entire world of popular music. (If you think that’s an exaggeration, just beg, borrow or steal tickets next time Dube’s playing anywhere near you, and see what I mean.)

Lucky Dube’s arrival in the Sunsplash firmament may have owed a little to chance, but only a little. Over the years Sunsplash has made a point of attracting reggae’s leading artists. And the response they receive from the often fickle Sunsplash crowds has consistently reflected what’s hot and what’s not in the reggae world.

What’s hot these days is DJ reggae, the heavily syncopated, often highly computerised music that’s known confusingly as dub in some Eastern Caribbean islands (confusingly because dub, to those of us who were around when reggae first went international, is something entirely different – but that’s another story).

The DJs are the current rulers of reggae, and their immense popularity is reflected in the crowds on Sunsplash’s Dancehall night. This is traditionally held on the Thursday, and for years it has attracted far and away the biggest crowds – the dancehall posses with their collective finger right on the pulse of reggae’s latest pacesetters.

Currently the front-running DJs are the Grammy award winning Shabba Ranks, a gravel-voiced, ghetto-wise embodiment of street chic, Jamaican style, and his fierce rival Ninja Man. But things change, and fast, in the DJ world, and today’s superstars can become yesterday’s heroes in the time it takes a hungry young upstart to dream up a crowd-catching phrase. And whoever that hungry youngster is, there’s sure to be a place for him (or her) on the Sunsplash line-up.

Over the years, Sunsplash has always featured the hottest reggae acts of the moment. When Bob Marley was alive and the unchallenged king of reggae – a crown he still wears 12 years after his death – he closed the second Sunsplash. When Yellowman was reggae’s biggest draw in the early and mid eighties, he was a Splash regular. Bunny Wailer, the late Peter Tosh, Gregory Isaacs and Sugar Minott have all headed Sunsplash line-ups.

While they invariably manage to sign up today’s crowd-pleasers, the Sunsplash organisers never forget the performers who paved the way for reggae in the sixties and seventies. Reggae veterans are always assured of exposure at Sunsplash. Often, they steal the show. One of the highlights of last year – the highlight, in fact, for me – was an awesome performance by Culture, the harmony trio which has been around since the mid-seventies and whose leader, Joe Hill, is arguably the greatest living reggae singer.

Other high points last year included a spectacular set by the Mighty Diamonds, another group whose roots go back to the seventies; a historic reunion of Leroy Sibbles and the Heptones, the group he formed before making Canada his home; a memorable lesson in the DJ’s art by the ageless Big Youth; and superb singing by Beres Hammond, Frankie Paul and the crown prince of reggae, Dennis Brown.

Every Sunsplash fan has favourite memories. I’ve got dozens, though I’ve only seen five or six Splashes. Tony Johnson has seen them all. He has helped Sunsplash grow from those stumbling early days at Jarrett Park into a slick event with state-of-the-art sound and a tightly-control-led production routine at its new home.

Ask Johnson which was his favourite Sunsplash and the response is unhesitating: “The last one. Every year we do things a little better, and every year is better than the one before.”

But he readily admits that his single most vivid memory is of one of the early Sunsplashes. The year was 1979, and the man with the coveted headline spot on the final night was Bob Marley. “I’ll never forget it,” recalls Johnson. “There was just an incredible mass of people. I saw Rastas I’ve never seen before or since, wise old men who came down from the hills to hear Bob. Then they went back, never to be seen again. At one point there were about 400 people jammed on the stage. We just couldn’t control them. I was worried it would collapse – it was a strong stage, but it wasn’t built for 400 people. Mercifully, it didn’t. But the next morning, when it was all over, it tumbled down. And there was no-one on it.”


Some Advice

Reggae Sunsplash is wonderful. The music’s great, the atmosphere’s terrific, and the temptation is great not to miss a moment of it.

My advice, particularly to first-time Splashers, is to resist that temptation, unless you happen to have the constitution of an Olympic decathlon champion, the stamina to go for a week with little or no sleep and to absorb something like 80 hours of music over the space of six days.

The problem is that there are simply too many goodies up for grabs. Sunsplash stretches over six long nights. Most evenings get going just after 9 p.m. and don’t wind up till 10 next morning, at the earliest. No matter how much you love reggae, that’s a lot to digest and a lot of sleep to miss.

Over the years I’ve tried tackling Sunsplash in different ways and my conclusion is: don’t be greedy. If you pig out on the Wednesday night with a 14-hour marathon, you’re going to regret it on Thursday when you can’t keep your eyes open for your favourite performer. Put 14-hour nights back-to-back and the next night’s a total write-off.

So what’s the answer? Simple. Study the Sunsplash line-up, decide which acts you really HAVE to see, figure out when they’re likely to perform, and limit yourself to no more than four or five hours of music a night. It’s tough. But this way you actually get to enjoy the acts you want to see, rather than sleeping through them.

Getting to and from the venue is an experience in itself. Find out from locals what the fare should be, and be prepared to bargain ruthlessly to make sure that’s what you pay.

Check out the venue while it’s still daylight. It’s hard to get your bearings in a crowded park when it’s dark. Try turning up around six, stroll around, sample some food, and head back to base till it’s time to catch your selected set. Be careful. Security’s excellent at Sunsplash, but all crowd events attract pickpockets or worse, so don’t wander off into deserted or unlit areas, and exercise the usual precautions. Kingston is one of the most fascinating cities in the Caribbean, with an extraordinary choice of things to see and do. Enjoy what the city has to offer, but be cautious about venturing off the beaten track.

Above all, don’t let these warnings put you off. Reggae Sunsplash is a great experience, and you’ll enjoy it all the more with a bit of advance planning and prudence.


The Jamworld festival village, Reggae Sunsplash’s new home, is an eight-acre site on the banks of the Rio Cobre river 15 minutes from downtown Kingston. The switch from Montego Bay to the capital was forced on the organisers when the Bob Marley Performing Centre, Sunplash’s home for nearly a decade, was sold for housing. Dates for this year’s festival:

Monday August 2: beach party (Fort Clarence Beach, Hellshire)

Tuesday August 3: Caribbean and World Beat Night (soca and other regional beats and performers, as well as reggae)

Wednesday August 4: Vintage Night (top reggae performers of the last 30 years)

Thursday August 5: Dance Hall Night (the cream of the reggae DJs)

Friday August 6: Singers’ Night (leading reggae vocalists)

Saturday August 7: International Night (top stars from all the music’s genres)

Sunsplash prices vary, but the most popular package deal covers the week’s action for US$100. That gives unlimited access to all events plus the car park and hospitality areas.

Among the performers lined up for this year’s event are Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers, Third World, Burning Spear, Shinehead, Buju Banton, Papa San, Dennis Brown, Frankie Paul, Majek Fashek (Nigeria), Gregory Isaacs, Shakademus and Pliers, Super Cat, Beres Hammond, Judy Mowatt and Mutabaruka.

Garry Steckles